This week’s article spotlighting enrollment rounds out another quintet of the five aspects of advancement.  Even though many schools have grown during our post-pandemic era, there are still some that continue to lose enrollment and need to reverse that downward spiral.  If this describes your school, this article is an important one for you and your school’s future.  It may sound flippant, but it has merit.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a new managing director of stewardship and development for a Diocese, and shared some information about what I found successful in growing development revenue as well as increasing enrollment in schools.  I left my previous occupation in the Spring of 2008, and in a spirit of fiscal responsibility, my position was never filled by a full-time employee, and the duties were passed from one employee to another, with a new person given the responsibility every 1-2 years.  Unfortunately, the “churn” experienced by parents or donors regarding leaders that change from year to year fails to build strong relationships.

During that change in the Spring of 2008, relationships needed to be reconnected, transitions needed to be made, and processes needed to continue.  6 months later, in September 2008, the housing bubble burst.  In October 2008, the economy tanked.  In November 2008, new national leadership was elected, and processes were put into place to stop the downward spiral.

Speaking of pendulums, in 2016, new national leadership was elected, and the pendulum swung in the opposite direction.  In 2020, change happened again, and notice where the pendulum swung.

It’s physics.

The more energy put into one side of a pendulum, the more the pendulum will swing to the other side when it is released.

Change happens, and it happens whether we like it or not, and whether we’re ready to deal with it or not.  If we don’t believe that, we’ve all been asleep through the pandemic.  And change leads to more change, as we continue to be reminded of daily.

Sadly, while change may be desired, it’s usually just one thing that someone wishes would change.  But one change sets off a significant number of other changes, which leads back to why people fear change.

As for schools in 2008, not only did the economy change, but personnel changed; administrators changed; school configurations changed; policies changed; and parents changed. That same year, Pre-Kindergarten programs began welcoming a new generational group of parents (and perhaps you didn’t even notice it!).

It was also the year the “desktop-based” computing began to shift toward “cloud-based” computing, and it was also right about that time that the student loan crisis began to emerge.

Why?  Millennials had graduated from college, and the ME Generation parents realized they were also responsible for paying back the loans they had co-signed for.  Other Millennials who may have had children were also considering where to enroll their young children in PreK programs, and needed to grapple with how that tuition cost would be paid, and who would be paying it.  If you haven’t realized yet, those Millennials who are considering enrolling their children in your school are also the exact same people who are saddled with paying off their student loans!

Indeed, EVERYTHING changed.  That’s why Advancement is all about everything.  It’s death to your school to say, “Let’s focus on Development this year,” just as it’s death to your school to say, “Let’s focus on technology this year.”  You have to do it all, every day, all the time (with a nod to the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”).

So where do we start?  Perhaps it’s important to look at something that affects all the elements of Advancement – terminology.  The proper use of words is important to gain clarity, and clarity is the cornerstone of, as consultant and author Patrick Lencioni calls it, a “healthy” organization.  For instance, “Focus” is different from “Emphasize.” “Focus” means blocking out everything extraneous to one single point of importance, and bringing every effort to bear on that single point…just like a laser that focuses light on one singular point.  “Emphasis” means keeping everything in perspective, but providing a little more attention to a particular area.

While all aspects of Advancement are essential to growing your school, Enrollment is the single most important thing you can improve to make your school financially sound – and yet, while some elementary schools still don’t have a full-time development director, even more don’t have a full-time enrollment director. Someone needs to “own” the responsibility of those essential processes today.  Further, in the spirit of clarity, I’ll explain why I’ve highlighted the word “improve” in a moment. First, the rationale:

– If there are fewer and fewer children in the school, interaction between parents also declines, and the social relationship of the school deteriorates;

– If there are fewer and fewer children in the school, there are fewer teachers that are needed…but parents don’t necessarily accept one teacher teaching three grades of children at the same time.  This will cause your enrollment to further deteriorate;

– If your tuition is in the several thousand dollars per child range, each student represents, in development terms, a major gift to the school’s financial picture;

– If there are fewer and fewer children in the school, the cost of education escalates, causing tuition to rise, which may cause enrollment, especially in the higher grades, to further deteriorate; and

– If there are fewer and fewer children in the school, that means there are fewer and fewer parents in the school community to provide the least expensive and most effective marketing available: “Word of Mouth” marketing.

So –

  • Why does your school’s brochure and/or Web site have a picture of your school on it – with no people around it…or worse, an empty parking lot?
  • Why is information about your school sent out all at once to an inquiring parent, leaving them to wade through a packet of medical and information release forms, rules, uniform order forms, an perhaps a financial aid application, etc. and then simply wait for the information to come back to the school…like it will magically appear in the mailbox with no follow-up from the school…especially during the summer, since everyone thinks there’s no one in the school’s office during the summer (or perhaps, there isn’t)?
  • Why does no one at the school answer the phone or return phone messages from prospective parents during the summer? Or, as I’ve heard from some schools, don’t give tours during the summer because it’s too hot in the school since it’s “all closed up?”
  • Why do some schools “shut down” for the month of July?  The only business that “shuts down” during a season and can expect to retain its customer base is an ice cream stand in the Northeast.
  • Why are “Enrollment” strategies grouped with “Retention” strategies?  If you group these two categories of strategies together, it’s no wonder you school may be struggling.  Enrollment focuses on admitting students at the entry-grade level; Retention focuses on keeping the students in your school as part of the school community.  It’s why some successful schools call the “whole thing” enrollment, yet have “Admission” and “Retention” strategies in place…just like colleges do.

A comprehensive advancement program is important (actually all FIVE elements – Asset Management, Retention, Marketing, Enrollment, and Development – are essential), and even though enrollment and development are both “long-term” goals, if you need to pick an emphasis on one or the other, you need to decide upon a fundamental question first.

That question is, “Who do you want to serve?”

If you opt for one group, you may find it’s difficult to support your work by maintaining a fundraising mindset.

If you opt for the other group, you may find it may take quite a while to change current mindsets that may be stuck in fundraising. You need to show the difference between “fundraising” and “fund raising.”

While everyone can agree upon the fact that more students in your school is the quickest way to demonstrate growth, the issue then becomes, “How sustainable is that growth?”

Further, you can improve enrollment.  Many schools, unfortunately, need to start development, asset management, retention and marketing efforts, and you can’t improve them until they’re begun, since improvement is a result of an action or actions, not an action in itself!  For more about this decision and phenomenon, send an email to [email protected] with the words “Who do you want to serve” in the subject line.

Effective marketing ties into this, since good marketing leads to more parent inquiries, which leads to more new students. You may say, “But when parents call and we tell them our tuition, they hang up.”  Yes.  Moreover, even more parents may be turned away when you publish your tuition schedule on your school’s Web site!  Remember, even if you offer financial aid or tuition management payment plans, sending two children to school at a cost of $7,000 a year or more is more than some people pay for their mortgage or rent.

This is an easy issue to deal with, but the solution isn’t easy, since you need to change the way you’ve been communicating with them.  Tuition is a fact – and simple facts about your school won’t “sell” your school to parents of prospective students. The decision to enroll in your school is an emotional decision made by the parent. Prospective parents have to get excited about your school, so make it a place where parents WANT to send their children. Once they’re in, make sure they have an excellent experience so they’ll spread the word about your school. Have inquiring parents come to the school first – and, if they like what they experience, you’ll be more than happy to share all the facts and figures as well as the procedure to apply for financial aid…but first, have them visit to make sure your school is right educational environment for their child.  Succinctly, get them in the door and experience your school!  Don’t use your Web site to immediately disqualify families who believe they can’t afford the four-figure or five-figure price tag per child.

But perhaps you’re thinking, “We post our tuition on our Web site because we want to be ‘up front’ about our tuition.” In our current economy, I would wager that if you do so, your school has experienced declining enrollment, and the survey I conducted about that phenomenon shows that to be true!  Of the schools that responded and don’t post their tuition, 50% of them experienced enrollment decline.  But for those that do post their tuition and responded, 70% experienced enrollment decline!  What are the better odds?  Don’t post your tuition and talk to parents – the right way!

Two things must happen.  First, you need to speak differently about your school’s tuition.  Lump sums are hard to swallow.  Here’s an example.  If I said you could own a Mercedes by paying $60,000 for the car, you may look to other options, like a Honda Accord.  However, if I told you could drive a Mercedes for the same amount of monthly payment it would cost you to finance a Honda Accord, then you’d want to find out how that could happen.

Therefore, when you speak about tuition, do so in terms of monthly (over 9 months) or even daily and hourly costs.  Why daily and hourly?  Daily is what today’s parents are paying for childcare, and hourly is what they pay for baby and child sitting services.  Young parents are comfortable with these costs.  No one is comfortable with four- or five-figures or, if they have more than one child, definitely five-figures, for tuition.  I can’t tell you how many people that need their daily dose of a well-known coffee-brand could save $1,000 a year by brewing their own.

Second, your school’s parents need to speak differently about your school, too.  Those folks that are currently parents in your school community have to stop airing their concerns about tuition increases or other problems in the marketplace.  The marketplace is any place within in the community you serve which is outside the walls of the school.  In the marketplace, current parents must be your school’s evangelists if the school community wants the school to grow. If parents are talking about the potential tuition increase at your school while they’re shopping at Wal-Mart, then other people are hearing their conversation, and one of them could be the grandparent of a child whose parent is considering your school for their education. Guess what happens when grandma talks to her daughter? That’s right – you don’t even get that phone call.  Remember, social media is for DISCUSSION – not for marketing.

So how are you going to double your enrollment, as the title of the article says?

Ask EVERY CHILD to bring a friend to school to spend a day with them.  Make it an INCREDIBLE experience! Invite their parents to a special session demonstrating the remarkable benefits of your school to start the day, and, for Catholic schools, then have them come back to participate in a Mass, or a blessing service with the whole school and the new children there, asking a special graces to be bestowed upon them.

Okay – maybe you won’t double your enrollment for the following school year, but if you make it a great day, you’ll have kids talking to their parents about the great stuff they did in school that day (and if every child brings a friend, enrollment will indeed be doubled – if just for that one day!).

And think about this…if your tuition is $4,000 a year, and you have 10 children in each class, you could have 20 children in each class, not increase your costs, charge $2500 a year for each child, and increase your income significantly.

I should mention that if your elementary school’s tuition structure is not based on what it costs to educate a child in your school, your school may be heavily subsidized by your supporting parishes or churches – and that’s a practice that’s not sustainable. Consider making that subsidy (or church/parish investment) need-based financial aid.

More about that next week.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2024